Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Bhutto's assassination and the US

Pakistan factors in US presidential race
From The Statesman
ND Batra

Benazir Bhutto’s assassination has hit the US presidential neck-to-neck race like a thunderbolt. Foreign policy credentials and experience have become suddenly very important as the Iowa caucuses begin on Thursday (3 January) and then a few days later the candidates head to the New Hampshire primaries.

In dealing with domestic and international issues, the candidates of both parties have been harping on change versus experience ~ political catchphrases that have assumed a new significance in the light of the fact that nuclear-armed Pakistan, now in the grip of Al-Qaida and Taliban militancy, might explode into an Iraq like insurgency. Strength and experience gained as the First Lady when she played an active role in Bill Clinton’s administration has been Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s strongest claim to the White House against her chief Democratic rival Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, whose fresh youthful face, poetic eloquence and rhetoric of change have lifted him up in public opinion polls as someone who could shake up things in Washington.

Suddenly Benazir Bhutto, after her assassination, has become the symbol of a future ~ a democratic Muslim country ~ that did not happen, and dealing with Pakistan has become the biggest challenge. During her campaign in Iowa, Senator Clinton said: “This is a terrible loss ~ certainly on a personal level ~ for those of us who knew her. It certainly raises the stakes high for what we expect from our next President. I know from a lifetime of working to make change.” And she added that President Pervez Musharraf has no credibility and an international independent inquiry be held to investigate the assassination of Benazir. The sentiment was echoed by many other Democrats scurrying for a position in the tight primary races. The unkindest cut against Senator Clinton came from Senator Obama’s camp.

Senator Obama’s campaign strategist David Axelrod said that because of Senator Clinton’s support of President Bush’s Iraq war, Al-Qaida has gotten emboldened and is hitting back in Pakistan with vengeance and destabilising the country. “She was a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, which we would submit, was one of the reasons why we were diverted from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Al-Qaida, who may have been players in this event today, so that’s a judgment she’ll have to defend.” She was not the only Democrat Senator who supported the war based on information about weapons of mass destruction available at that time. But this is an election time and candidates are at each others’ throats with half-truths, distortion and attack ads.

Republican presidential hopeful Senator John McCain of Arizona has always been strong on the issue of national security and a steadfast supporter of President Bush’s Iraq war. He is one of the few American politicians who has unreservedly defended President Musharraf after the unexpected killing of Benazir.

Before Musharraf took over the reins of power, Senator McCain said: “Pakistan was a failed state. They had corrupt governments and they would rotate back and forth and there was corruption, and Musharraf basically restored order. So you’re going to hear a lot of criticism about Musharraf that he hasn’t done everything we wanted him to do, but he did agree to step down as head of the military and he did get the elections.”

The Senator’s top priority is to see a thorough failsafe security of the nuclear arsenal; and then of course to urge President Musharraf to hold the planned elections at the earliest convenience.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, another leading candidate among the Republicans, is running on the strength of his 11 September, 2001 credentials of braving the chaos and fighting terrorism. It was under his leadership that New York after the terrorists’ attacks began to recover and rebuild itself with alacrity and today it is one of the safest cities to live in the United States. Benazir’s assassination re-enforces his view that the world is a dangerous place and the United States needs a determined leader like him to fight terrorism. Arkansas former Governor Mike Huckabee, another Republican front-runner and a Christian conservative, gives the impression of having very little knowledge of what is happening in the world. In the wake of the assassination, he said that illegal Pakistani immigrants were pouring in from the Mexican border, an irresponsible remark from a presidential hopeful when most Americans are wondering how to prevent Pakistan from descending into a living hell.

While Republican and Democratic candidates are scrambling to strike postures of strength in dealing with the growing Al-Qaida and Taliban might in Pakistan, the Bush administration finds itself to be at its wits’ end as to how to help President Musharraf to quell street violence and re-establish a sense of security in the country. Holding fair and free elections, many in the administration still believe, would have created the possibility of forming a broad-based army-civilian participatory government, which would have been in a better position to fight the growing menace of Al-Qaida and the Taliban. That hope died with Benazir’s assassination; but the question is if the plan can be resurrected from the wreckage.

The United States, in its own self-interest, cannot stand aside helplessly and let the country slide into chaos and anarchy and let Al-Qaida and the Taliban take control of Pakistan and eventually Afghanistan. Nor can India afford to keep aloof by simply sealing its borders. The enemies of Pakistan are India’s enemies too.

(ND Batra is professor of communications and diplomacy at Norwich University, Vermont. He is the author of Digital Freedom.)

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